Rhode Island Philharmonic: Let the contest begin

If you’re a lover of mystery and competition, this is your season to keep an eye on the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Eight different conductors—only some of whom are candidates—will guest on the Philharmonic podium this season, auditioning for the permanent position as music director of the Phil.

Following last year’s retirement of the exceedingly popular Larry Rachleff, after 21 years, it won’t be an easy choice. But it should be lots of fun for symphony watchers and music lovers—eight different conductors, all bringing their A game.

James Sommerville will be the first. The principal horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and long-term (2007-15) conductor of the Hamilton (Ont.) Philharmonic Orchestra, Sommerville leads the opening night program on Sept. 16. Repertory includes Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (Simone Porter, soloist), and Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

Sommerville’s program is representative of the entire season: in an effort to make a strong, positive impact, each of the conductors has programmed works that are unusual, virtuosic and potential crowd-pleasers. 

Eckart Preu follows suit in the Oct. 14 performance, conducting Miguel del Aguila’s “Conga-Line in Hell” (gotta love that title), Mozart’s elegant D minor piano concerto (No. 20, with Alon Goldstein as soloist), and the Saint-Saëns Organ symphony. 

On Nov. 18 conductor Bramwell Tovey returns to the Phil with soloist Inon Barnatan, performing a bracing program featuring Brahms’s first piano concerto, Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire” overture, and Elgar’s atmospheric “Enigma Variations.” 

Each of the conductors also gets a second chance to impress: Preu leads a Friday Rush Hour series repeat of the Saint-Saëns symphony (Nov. 13), and Sommerville (Sept. 15) and Tovey (Nov. 17) lead open rehearsals of their programs (www.ri-philharmonic.org; 410 248-7000). 

Ken-David Masur (Jan. 20), Michael Christie (Feb. 17), Victor Yampolsky (March 17), Jacomo Bairos (Apr. 7), and Edwin Outwater (May 5) will also guest after the first of the year. The Philharmonic’s executive director David Beauchesne notes that not all of the guests are actual candidates for the permanent job—“this is not a beauty contest,” he’s said, “we need to find the right chemistry”—but that won’t stop the speculation.

Festival of Contemporary Music, at Tanglewood. Aug. 11, 2017

The second in a series of short reviews of the Festival of Contemporary Music, ongoing at Tanglewood (Aug. 10–14). A summary review will appear at the conclusion of the festival at Classical Voice North America (classicalvoiceamerica.org).

The Del Sol String Quartet has made its mark championing contemporary composition. Its cellist, Kathryn Bates, is bringing that energy to Tanglewood this weekend as a co-curator of the Festival of Contemporary Music. She programmed the second chamber concert of the festival, Friday afternoon in Ozawa Hall.

Bates focused on quartet literature, but the music took many different shapes. Compositions included works by the late New Zealander Jack Body, Terry Riley, Rene Orth, Moritz Eggert, Lei Liang (a violin/cello sonata), Ben Johnston, and a world premiere from Kui Dong. 

This will not be a comprehensive appraisal of this fascinating afternoon. Dong and Eggert broke new ground instrumentally: Dong by creating a theatrical piece with glass harmonica and player piano rolls, and Eggert adding a percussionist to the foursome and involving he string players in percussion as well.

Body’s work, “Flurry,” was set for three quartets (as with all FCM performances, the players were drawn from the outrageously talented Tanglewood Music Center fellows). Bates had them perform “Flurry” twice—a nice touch. It only runs a few minutes, but has decided energy. Built on ostinato triplets, nobody was disappointed when she shouted “Let’s do it again” after the first run.

Kui Dong’s premiere, “A Night at Tanglewood,” was an elegant structure: quiet, moving, engaging. Gentle textures, with little variation in sonic range, and modest volumes, were interspersed with player piano rolls run through hand-cranked home-made machines.

Three of the players began fingering glass globes, accompanied by cello drone. After setting the mood, they migrated to their stands, and performed as a quartet—but in the same sonic purview. 

The cellist (Francesca McNeeley) capped off the work by wandering over to the globes, revisiting their eerie sound.

It was quiet but dense, still but complex—all at the same time. 

Tanglewood Music Center fellows performing Kui Dong's world premiere, A Night at Tanglewood. Hilary Scott photograph.

Tanglewood Music Center fellows performing Kui Dong's world premiere, A Night at Tanglewood. Hilary Scott photograph.

Riley? 1975’s “G Song,” an similarly simple exploration of that key, predominantly in rising and falling scales. Both Johnston’s “Amazing Grace” quartet (No. 4) and Lei’s “Gobi Canticle” explored pentatonic moods. Johnston’s quartets are never ever ever played enough. Orth’s “Stripped” had beautiful development, growing from growling, scratchy string playing into tender, fugal textures—and ending with a lovely ppp coda.

Eggert’s “Croatoan II”? Never seen overtaxed string players be so relieved that a piece was over. The work had some interest, but the gymnastics required of the quartet—who tapped instruments, shuffled feet, and rang bells, all trying to keep up with percussionist Tyler Flynt—were a distraction.

 

The Festival of Contemporary Music continues with a prelude concert Saturday evening in Ozawa Hall, featuring music by Caroline Shaw, Amy Williams, and Julian Anderson.

Festival of Contemporary Music opens, Thursday, Aug. 10 at Tanglewood

The Festival of Contemporary Music opened at Tanglewood Thursday evening with toys, tuning forks and text. Lots of it.

This year’s festival has three curators who share programming duties: Jacob Greenberg, Kathryn Bates and Nadia Sirota. Each presents one chamber program, and all three contribute to Monday evening’s finale. 

Greenberg chose works by Phyllis Chen, Gyorgy Kurtag, Nathan Davis, Anthony Cheung, Sofia Gubaidulina and George Lewis for Thursday evening’s opening program in Ozawa Hall. The performers were drawn from the excellent TMC fellows, with a few guests.

Davis (“The Sand Reckoner”; for voices and celeste) and Cheung (“All thorn, but cousin to your rose”; for the powerful soprano Paulina Swierczek, accompanied by Greenberg on piano) offered world premieres.

There is no summarizing such diverse repertory. Chen’s work always fascinates: in a creative atmosphere that emphasizes sound and textures in an almost rudimentary way, her explorations into the timbres of toy instruments seems appropriate, and inevitably leads to discovery. 

In this work, “Chimers” from 2011, she guts a toy piano, sets the innards upright on a stand, and has players set off pitches by touching the upright strings with tuning forks. Violin, toy glockenspiel and clarinet swirl around with short solo enhancements. Unique in all ways, and compelling.

One thing about Thursday’s program does suggest a summary: the verbose world premieres. Both Davis, using a scientific discourse from Archimedes, and Cheung, who borrowed from a screed against translators by Vladimir Nabokov, took the non-fiction approach to voice and instruments. 

Setting thousands of text for a singer inevitably leads to long passages of sprechstimme, or simply spoken word. It puts the singer at a remove from the music at times, and the text at a remove from artistic interpretation.

This is not so much criticism as observation. Both works had some interest, but not as lyric settings. They had interest in the juxtaposition of meaning, sound and intention. 

Nabokov’s text especially: his diatribe against the failings of translators (talk about an easy target—almost easier than music critics), which only partially made its point (his examples of failed translations didn’t seem that much like failings), forced the listener to examine the compositional goal.

It certainly wasn’t to highlight the text with musical emphasis (although the piano part was fascinating, and lovingly played by Greenberg). It wasn’t any attempt to disassociate the text from its meaning, or deconstruct it. In ways, it presented the text as if someone just opened the book and started singing. If lines were dropped (some were), it really didn’t matter. 

Davis skipped over such ideas about the text, enhancing Archimedes’s now irrelevant scientific insights in an otherworldly blend of layering, technique and juxtaposition. A sextet of terrific voices (soprano Alexandra Smither and bass Andrew Munn, most notably), with Greenberg on celeste and computer sounds, brought to life a piece that sounded organic in every measure.

Beautiful works by Gubaidulina (her “Meditation,” for sextet) and Kurtag (settings for voice, strongly presented by baritone Ryne Cherry and tenor Daniel McGrew), along with Lewis’s antic and charming “Anthem,” theatrically realized by soprano Kate Soper, added to the ambitious evening of ideas.

FCM often has a “generational” feel: composers come from one age-grouping of professionals, and the critical urge then is to find some trend or common ground among them. Not here. 

TMC fellows perform Phyllis Chen's "Chimers." Hilary Scott photograph.

TMC fellows perform Phyllis Chen's "Chimers." Hilary Scott photograph.

With Kurtag and Gubaidulina at the beginning, Lewis in the middle, and Cheung, Chen and Davis more recent practitioners, Greenberg’s choices cast a wide net over contemporary composition. A quick look at upcoming programs shows that Sirota and Bates do the same thing. There may be no summary available, but it made for an ear- and mind-stretching evening of music.

 

The first of brief reviews of each FCM program. There are additional programs Friday and Saturday afternoons, Sunday morning and evening, and Monday evening. An overview of the entire festival will appear at Classical Voice North America (classicalvoiceamerica.org) after the conclusion of the festival, Aug. 14.